A Few Delayed Thoughts on Chains– A Response to My Mini-Lesson

Way back in the middle of the semester, I taught a mini-lesson on Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. I chose to teach this novel originally because I’ve read a few of her other works (Speak, Twisted, 3/4 of Catalyst), and Speak remains to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

So within my Chains mini-lesson, I presented this following question and an option for the Do Now/Warm Up:

“In what ways are Isabel and Madam Lockton similar? Use textual evidence to support your reasoning.”

The majority of my colleagues (students) made excellent connections that in some ways Madam Lockton is similar to Isabel because she has no power or authority with regard to her husband. She is also stubborn and strong-willed. One or two students even went on to say that perhaps the reader should sympathize with her and her situation.

While I try my best never to steer my students to an answer or the “right answer” (because right and wrong can certainly be subjective in English Literature) the point I was attempting to drive home was that Madam Lockton is a hypocrite of the worst order. She has experienced abuse and suffering at the hands of her husband, yet she treats Isabel in the exact same manner– if not worse in some instances.

So the question I walked away with is “How do I give my students room to breathe and express their opinions, while still objectively presenting the point I want to make?”

 

-NC

 

Shapeshifter David vs Hydra-headed Goliath: Chris Crutcher

LD                                       https://i1.wp.com/cdn-prod.www.aws.nypl.org/sites/default/files/images/crutcher_m.jpg

Well, as I finish Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, I have to stop and dash off my pink cloud valentine to Chris Crutcher, the pen warrior. I see some patterns between Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes that I consider noteworthy and even admirable. Like a good baker, Crutcher knows that if you stay true to the right measurements of your ingredients, you can be creative with substitutions, and come out with something original each time.

His adolescent boy-protagonists: two extremes in one body, usually the asset hidden behind the hairline, the deficit visible to all the world – what a great way to shape the representative of the Age of Development. Hence, Ben in Deadline is undersized and terminal, and Eric in Sarah Byrnes is fat; both smart. In this way, our hero can discover and discuss thorny social and political dilemmas from a variety of angles  (because he is not scared to use his intelligence) while retaining the essential vulnerability of anguished physicality, the most painful aspect of adolescence, in my experience.  Religion, nationalism, racism and sexuality, even death, are brought into play, through our flawed protagonist. We can love him, since his imperfections are always visible, and we feel his experiences, as his vulnerabilities bring us into his world.

His superheroes are female: they embody the feminine mystery of life by carrying a secret, or more, of the painful realities of an oppressive and misogynistic culture; unveiling these drive the story towards its ultimate goal: the truth. These females have greater spunk and grit while showing how to overcome, or at least resist, the  abuse of a hypocritical society; another set of contradictions. They inspire our protagonist, and us, to face the truth, however horrible it is.

His villains are male: their destructiveness is two-fold, coming from the inability to question oneself, i.e. use one’s intelligence; and believing that physical domination is a solution. Despite their darkness, sometimes they are a mixed bag, like Sooner in Deadline, who is redeemed by his athleticism, team spirit, and the possibility that his death will change his abusive father; and Dale in Sarah Byrnes, who is brought onto the winning team by Sarah Byrne’s tactical strategies.

He has two kinds of families, too: the ones that are able to support each other in a healthy way, despite obstacles (Eric and his single mom in Sarah Byrnes; Ben and his brother Cody in Deadline); and families that have threads of violence, abuse and fractured relationships (Sarah in Sarah Byrnes; Dallas in Deadline). He also depicts families ruled by single obsessions, like Sooner’s dad in Deadline, and Ellerby in Sarah Byrnes.

Crutcher challenges the reader to think about issues raised by the smarter kids in the school; he alternates that heady thinking with pulse-racing descriptions of athletic competitiveness, an all-American pursuit. In this manner, he keeps his polarized balance by offering critiques of our political and social culture while cheering us on with the adrenaline of sports.

So, I am warmed by Crutcher’s big, democratic, all-American heart that believes that engaged young people, thinking, feeling, reasoning, will find solutions to the complex, unfair world they are inheriting, despite dark endings.  The desire to have young people commit to their intelligence, their uniqueness, their strengths, is an evident pattern in his books, and in the funny and loving way he depicts all  his young people.

A.K.B- Turning Ideas into Metaphors in StarGirl

Turning Ideas into Metaphors in StarGirl

A.K.B

Targeted Grade Level: 6th grade

  1. CCS RL 1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what text says explicitly as well as inferences from the text.
  2. Larger context for activity: The theme of this unit may be whether or not people can live in society without conforming to what society says is the norm. This activity will take place at the end of the unit or close to the end of the unit, so that students will have read enough of the story to develop ideas that they could turn into metaphors. Some possible next steps to this activity is to have students continue collecting evidence concerning a key idea in Stargirl and compose essays at the end of the unit. In addition, students can continue to collect information for these metaphors and at the end of the unit create photo essays that are dependent upon the evidence that they have collected.
  3. Assessment design:

This activity is a formative assessment and is low stake assessment. I am assessing my students by the evidence that they use to create their metaphors (This means I am looking to see if the metaphors connect with the evidence). I am still monitoring and helping to identify strengths and weaknesses in the evidence that my students are collecting. I can identify where my students are struggling in collecting and placing evidence with the right arguments for future essays.

Challenging Perspectives

LD

“Miss, miss…why do we have to study literature? What makes it literature, anyway?”

“Well, its writing that we have decided holds enough layers, meaning, subtlety and complexity that it is elevated to a higher designation: literature.”

“You mean like Push?”

“Well…do you think Push falls into all those categories? For example, tell me about the layers in Push.”

“The layer I liked was when Precious started to write poetry; when she could hardly read or write at the beginning.”

“Yeah…and how about the way she figured out how to get her breakfast, but left her book behind? And the other girl saw it?”

“And meaning?”

“Her teacher knew that writing in her journal would help her in alot of ways.”

“Ok…did you find Push subtle or complex?”

“Sure…the way Precious had to figure out how to talk to the principal, and the social worker, not giving anything away…and how she thought it was better to pee her pants than walk in front of her classmates and get dissed.”

“Well, do you think Push should be called literature?”

“Yeah, sure, why not? It had alot of different language in it, and alot happened to her; she showed courage, and we all wanted her to succeed by the end. I would call it literature. Hood literature.”

“Well, then, let’s put Push on our list of Personal Literature Favorites.”

Fishbowl as Panopticon

Familiar guises of power, in German

In The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, we follow Frankie, a sophomore in a private school in Connecticut, as she pushes the envelope of what is personally and socially acceptable, exploring her sense of self and the Other in her relationship with her boyfriend, Matthew. She discovers her taste for subversive acts, both against the institution, and the boys’ club, the Bassett Hounds, to which her father, now a repressed doctor, once belonged, and in which her boyfriend Matthew, is currently king Dog. She reaps the rewards of seeing herself actively redefined in the eyes of the boys club, the school, her friends and family, and herself, while paying a minimal price for her actions of manipulation and resistance.

Two elements of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks caught my attention: class and privilege, and language. Since one is a key factor in framing the other, my interest lay in showing how language reflects class and privilege, and as an extension, character and identity. Naturally, gender issues are a foundational aspect of the above distinctions as well, and are reflected as well in language.

I enjoyed the wordplay in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. What is possible when a young person is given endless instruction, guidance, support and direction? Everything. Certainly the creative and idiosyncratic use of language, a tool in creating identity; a set of witty and imaginative calling cards that designate cliques; clever monikers reflecting status and roles within peer groups in a school that walks a tightrope between modern values and the codified social and gender hierarchy of the privileged classes.

So Frankie, already impressively developed as the product of endless attention and support,  is given great latitude to find her own voice, her own relationship, her own stance vis a vis male hierarchy and power. And most of it is cost-free. She breaks free of her limited role in her family; she re-defines herself romantically; and she has the luxury of considering becoming a social critic, from a secure, educated position. A win-win situation. The worst hits she receives are occasional grammatical corrections from Matthew, the language freak. Interesting that the ultimate marker of his social status is his  acquisition of the most meticulously developed language, as well as the right to correct any of his peers. Language is power, and everyone in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks has mountains of it.

I found myself wondering if I would ever be able to use this book with any student groups I have taught: I finally decided that maybe the girls I taught part-time at the Spence School, an exclusive all-girls school on the Upper East Side, might work. Many key aspects of the life written about in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks are shared by Spence girls, from the easy and blithe access to travel, food, resources, support, encouragement and attention to individual development; to the casual assumption of props, toys, accessories, and goods of any kind. So, while the ease of daily existence shared by almost everyone at Alabaster Preparatory Academy was not dwelt upon much in the book,  class allusions were made to the differences between the merely well-off (Frankie and her doctor father) and the super-rich, (Matthew and his famous newspaper father). The material difficulties of scholarship students such as Alpha were glossed over, while it was clear that Alpha’s method of compensating for his lack of social  and material position was to outdo the others by being “Alpha Dog” amongst the young studly men; his eagerness to abandon public school and return to Alabaster’s privilege and sequestered life indicated his desire to return to the upper class setting of Alabaster.

I also found similarities between the language skills exemplified by each character and their social standing in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and the kind of expressive and precocious communications coming from Spence girls, whose every thought, feeling, desire and opinion is articulated, and almost instantly responded to. The myriad ways the administration of Alabaster Preparatory Academy responded to expressions by Frankie and the Bassett Hounds, as well as others — discreetly, diplomatically, politically astute, was the book’s counterpart. A difference  would be that in Alabaster Preparatory Academy,  sexism and gender inequality is passively reinforced through a historic acceptance of the rebelliousness of the (male) Bassett Hounds, and the unchallenged  top social positioning of the upperclass young men. At Spence, the young women play out their power games, like Frankie, against a backdrop of endless support and security, challenging and sometimes taunting their teachers, boyfriends, fathers, chauffeurs, nannies, cooks or tutors. Their self-identities are reinforced by their social positions of power and money and while their all-femaleness is strengthened and supported at Spence, they, like Frankie, might be confronted out in the world by their gender, although still socially supported by their class. For Frankie, the gender issue is the clearest and easiest boundary to push against in a mixed gender school. I kept waiting for Frankie’s ultimate trump: the re-framing of the name of the boys’ club history book, The Disreputable History of the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds into the Reputable Future of the Loyal Order of the Panopticons, a new, all-female challenge to school authority, since the gender restrictions at Alabaster are not to be seriously challenged, just appropriated. If I were teaching this book at Spence, I would target the 5th grade girls, as there the levels of social awareness and sophistication are developed early. I would focus on the gender issues, as well as the creative uses of language.

So, while yes, we as readers can identify and support Frankie in her quest for self-autonomy and identity against a more unconscious projection of her female role in society, it seems imperative to factor in the ease of agency and minimized consequence the world of privilege and class provides her and her circle. I also have to ask: other than Spence girls,who is able to relate to these rarified circumstances? Really?

LD

Adolescents ( Cliques, Age Segregation and lots of secrets

OM—-E. Lockhard  has tapped into the psychological realm of adolescent in many ways.  Even though this is a literature class I think it is also important to connect Pshychology to get a better understanding of the book.  First of all  Lockhard taps into  the context of adolescents as stated by Developmental Psychologist: Laurence Steingberg.   In particular; Lockhard taps into the Peer Groups and Schools.   In The Disreptuable History of  Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart takes us to the world of Secret Societies (Cliques)  and even age segregation.  The Secret Society aka The Basset Hounds consists of a group of boys (only boys)  that are approximately the same age.  According to Laurence Steinberg  this would fit into his category as a “clique.” Cliques are simply tightly knit groups of between 2-12 friends that are generally of the same sex and age.   Page 200 states ” Are you jointing the asset Hounds?” Zada was incredulous “What do they do?”  “I can’t join.  It’s  all guys, all senior.”   Lockhart even went further within the context of adolescent by portraying one of the issues that comes with peer groups.  This issue is simply age segregation.  On page  158 Elizabeth teased Frankie who was sitting at the SENIOR table by saying ” taking over the senior table, eh, squirt?” and ” What do you think, Livingston? Elizabeth asked Matthew.  “Your girlie waiting for you at the senior table.”

We need more of this: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

*I am going to preface by saying this post will be more of a mushy gush about how much I loved The Disreputable History instead of a clear analysis. But stay with me here.*

First off, let me start off by saying I could not put down The Disreputable History. I am fairly certain I burned through it in a day,

And I think the main conclusion I walked away with from the end of reading it is that we absolutely, absolutely need more of this kind of YA Lit on the bookshelves. While Frankie’s methods for achieving what she wants may not have been the best way to handle the situation (despite making for ingenious entertainment), the message was clear: it’s okay for a teenage girl to want to be a go-getter (in fact, she should be). I absolutely love this idea of a young teenage girl understanding that while she doesn’t need to apologize for wanting and even enjoying traditionally feminine things (the popular senior boyfriend, for example), they are not worth losing herself and who she yearns to be in the process of it. I think this is a seriously important point that we constantly forget to drive home to our young women in this 21st century world.

Second, frankieI absolutely love, love, LOVE how well the book addresses this concept of connections and bonds in the “Old Boys Club.” While we’ve heard the concept of the glass ceiling time and again- I think this novel really gets to the language and attitude that forms the beams for the ceiling itself. Frankie is constantly called “adorable, sweet, bunny rabbit, pretty, darling, etc” by others, but these are never words she uses to describe herself throughout the novel. Language plays a lot into how women are perceived by others, and Lockhart does an execellent job of showing how quickly people (both friends and family) are prepared to underestimate her based on the way she looks or how they feel she thinks.

Lastly, a particular quote that stuck with me was:

“Matthew had called her harmless. Harmless. And being with him made Frankie feel squashed into a box– a box where she was expected to be sweet and sensitive (but not oversensitive); a box for young and pretty girls who were not as bright or powerful as their boyfriends. A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with.

Frankie wanted to be a force.”  (pg 214)

^UGH. THIS. JUST ALL OF THIS.

The boundaries and lines outlined for Frankie (be sweet, adorable, smart-but not too smart, just be what I want to be and nothing more) are ones many young women face at some point when growing into who they want to be. By understanding that they don’t have to prescribe to these conditions already set out for them by society and challenging them, they give themselves a chance to grow into women who can build their own paths–without being boxed into something else along the way.

I say more lit like this on the shelves could really make a difference in the minds of young girls.

Because no one ever wants to be called “harmless” by someone who supposedly cares for them.

-NC